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An essay by George William Curtis

Public Benefactors

Title:     Public Benefactors
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

There is a class of unrecognized public benefactors to which the Easy Chair wishes to offer a respectful tribute of gratitude. Their service is none the less because it is unconscious; and it is not confined to either sex. It is, besides, a very varied service, as will be readily seen as we advance in our description. Let us, then, without delay, and to begin with, specify as benefactors of this kind the young and other gentlemen who do duty at club windows, and the ladies who kindly appear only in the latest fashions. Most men, intent upon the necessary industry wherewith they maintain their families, are content to live plainly, and can seldom escape their work. There is Sunday, indeed, and a happy hour in the Park, and perhaps a run in the summer for a week or two to Long Branch or the mountains. But black care generally attends as a body-servant, not always or immediately recognizable, but like that solemn waiter whom Mr. George Hadder describes at a dinner given by Leech, the artist, who announced the feast with the air of an undertaker, and who proved to be the clerk of the neighboring parish,--a little story which may be found, with much other entertaining reading, in a handy volume of Mr. Stoddard's "Bric-à-Brac Series."

But the busy man's imagination is still at play, and he fancies a life which he does not know, a life of elegant and boundless leisure, which hovers above and around his weary routine, and a life in which his home is spacious and splendid, where he is clad in handsome clothes and never troubled by his tailor's bill, because he has always a balance in the bank; a life in which he opens his eyes in the morning, not to wonder if he has overslept himself and to plunge out of bed and into his clothes and through his breakfast, to hurry to the car or omnibus, dreading to be too late--opens his eyes, we say, not for this, but languidly to wonder, as he looks from under the hangings, how most easily and pleasantly to while away the time. A wise author says that the beauty of the landscape is only a mirage seen from the windows of a diligence. So is the life of leisure which the busy man sees in fancy and in the tales which in his hasty way he sometimes reads on a rainy Sunday or in the evening. Yet it would be mere fable to him except for the benevolent genii in the club window. As he hurries homeward when his day's work is done, he lifts his eye as he passes upon the sidewalk, or he peers from the omnibus window, and lo! there stands the man to whom this leisure of his dreams is a daily reality.

The figure which is making these dreams real, and which he cannot but regard as a benefactor, stands in the spacious window, and there is often a group of such figures; always with the hat on, and generally with a cane in the hand, and such garments as are seen only in the plates of the fashions and upon the tailor's lay-figures. Why, being in a warm house, he should wear his hat, when he takes it off upon entering all other houses, doth not appear. But it is part of his office to wear it. For this representative of leisure models himself upon the habits of similar ministers in those tales which the busy man sometimes reads; and as Fitz-Clarence Mortimer wears his hat in the club window upon Pall Mall, so must the hat be worn in our own club windows. Do not think that hatted figure gazing at the passing ladies and carriages rolling to the Park is a useless dandy. Nature wastes nothing. Nature does not inspire him to pay tailors and shoemakers and jewellers and hatters, and then to stand sucking the head of a cane in a club window without a purpose. The brilliancy and perfume of flowers and the song of birds, as science shows, are not for our delight only; they serve the reproduction and perpetuity of life. The final cause of that hatted figure is not the advertising of a tailor; it is the effect upon the imagination. It serves the end of all art. It makes real to the busy citizen that life of leisure and of opportunity of which he reads and dreams.

Nor does it end with the suggestion. As the busy man goes by and beholds the apparition, he reflects upon the use of such opportunity as is revealed to him at the window. That man, he says, born to a fortune, or having by faithful industry and sagacity early amassed it, is now master of his life. He commands time and money, the two levers which are so powerful in heaving the world forward. He has but to devise how he can be of service to others, and obey the leading of his generous soul. Think of the hearths and the hearts that he cheers! Think of the knowledge that he acquires, the studies that he pursues, for the enlightenment of legislation and the practical advantage of government! Think how gladly he bears his part in the work of organized charities! He has what so few of us have--time and money. He can do so much, so much! What can he not do? So muses the busy man, who must give all his day, and some of the night often, to earning the pittance upon which he lives. And as he muses his good heart asks him why he should require everything of the hatted figure of leisure in the club window, and discharge his own debt of duty by thinking how easily another can discharge his. Everything in its degree, he says, as his steps quicken with the thought. One star differeth from another star in glory. Why, because that man, born in the purple or winning it, can do so much, can I do nothing? Because his whole life is that leisure of endless opportunity of which I can only dream, have I no minutes, no chances? Haunted by this thought, he finds even his full-stretched day elastic. He pulls it out until he, too, cheers some hearth and heart that would otherwise have been frozen! and the busy man is busier, indeed, but happier, and the amount of human suffering is a little less. In this light does not the hatted figure at the window become a real benefactor? Nothing, indeed, is further from its mind. It does not even see the busy citizen by whom it is seen. But Nature has attained the object for which she placed it in a club window with a hat on and sucking the head of a cane.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Public Benefactors